More Independent Grocers Transforming Into Grocerants

LAS VEGAS — Fighting for a point of differentiation, more independent grocers are turning to fresh-prepared food departments, the fastest-growing departments in the supermarket business.

Joan Driggs, editorial director of Progressive Grocer, a sister publication of Convenience Store News, moderated an educational session at this week’s The 2016 NGA Show, entitled "Grocer or Restaurateur?" The panel was aimed at helping independent grocers make sense of — not to mention make profits from — this burgeoning business, which convenience stores are also after.

Panelists Dan Shanahan, president of Ohio-based Buehler Food Markets; Kent Dimbath, chief financial officer of Dayton, Ohio-based Dorothy Lane Market; and Mike Lovsin, chairman of Freson Bros., based in Alberta, Canada, discussed their approaches to fresh-prepared food operations, the cultures they are building, and their marketing and outreach strategies.

Buehler Food Markets invites its customers to be part of the process. At the 15-store Buehler's chain, an annual barbecue competition invites customers to enter their own barbecue sauces, with the winner having their recipe bottled and sold in stores as the sauce of the year.

Three-store chain Dorothy Lane Market continues to experiment with wine bars, outdoor seating, and special evenings that pair foods with craft beers or wine.

"It's an evolution, not a revolution," Dimbath told NGA Show attendees.

Freson Bros., which has 15 locations in rural areas of Alberta and in some instances might be the only game in town, has its stores balance chef-developed new recipes with the menu standards that its regulars have come to depend on.

All the panelists agreed that the “grocerant” business model is dramatically different from traditional grocery retailing. "Even the language is different," said Shanahan, who underwent training with his team to understand foodservice operations.

It also means different approaches to hiring and training. Buehler's learned the hard way that it takes recognition of the contribution, along with competitive salaries, to attract and retain talent.  

Freson's Lovsin noted that in his small towns, competitive salaries are a must, but the company is making some hiring gains as the area’s oil industry dips.

Dorothy Lane's Dimbath shared a pleasant surprise: Millennial employees, many of whom are college students, look forward to working the grill, seamlessly clearing what could have been a major hurdle. 

The retailers on the panel also discussed their passion for quality, great-tasting food; the importance hospitality plays for an exceptional experience; and the understanding that in today's environment, competition is everywhere, including the restaurant down the street.

The 2016 NGA Show took place Feb. 28 through March 2 at Las Vegas’ Mirage Hotel & Casino. The annual event brings together independent retailers and wholesalers, food retail industry executives, food/consumer packaged goods manufacturers, and service providers for opportunities to learn, engage, share, network and innovate.

The National Grocers Association (NGA) is the only industry association devoted exclusively to the needs of independent grocers.

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